Some said that Damiens had been motivated by criticisms of the King for his involvement in recent religious controversies. Specifically, Louis XV had supported an order by the Archbishop of Paris that priests must deny last rites to those who adhered to Jansenism, a stricter, more ascetic version of Catholicism than the Jesuit beliefs favored by the circle at court. Among those who opposed the King on this question were the magistrates of the nation's chief law courts, the Parlements—which not only heard criminal and civil cases but also were responsible for registering all royal edicts. In their view, His Majesty had violated the traditions of the French monarchy. This broader debate was echoed in Damiens's own testimony, in questions posed by his investigators, and in various pamphlets published about the attack and ensuing trial. For a monarchy quick to deny that any such opposition could exist, the trial of Damiens provided an opportunity to search out (and presumably suppress) all dissidence—even among such unlikely critics as the nuns of the convent of St. Joseph. Finally, having satisfied themselves that Damiens had indeed acted alone, the magistrates of the Parlement ended the entire affair and the life of the would-be assassin, by staging a spectacular public execution.

The Damiens affair demonstrates the monarchy's general problem: religious controversies were stirring up antagonistic sentiments. The Parlementary magistrates articulated historically justifiable and specific criticisms of the crown. Even though they were judges in royal courts of law, the magistrates could protest against royal edicts by issuing "remonstrances," rather than registering them as new laws. Through such protests, which were sometimes printed, the judges could enunciate their views to an ever-growing audience of interested observers, referred to as the "public" or "nation."

In their first responses to the edicts suppressing Jansenism, the magistrates were quite circumspect. Although they attacked not only the clergy's deed but also an edict issued by the royal government, they claimed to be allying themselves completely with the monarch. The judges retained this basic pose of subservience to royal authority, even while defying it, although their rhetoric became more overtly antimonarchical as the long reign of Louis XV brought crisis upon crisis.

The conflict between the Parlements and the King moved to other topics and intensified in 1756, with the onset of a new war with Britain. In the wake of extraordinary expenses and a poor military performance in the Seven Years' War, many began complaining about royal taxes. The Parlement of Paris argued that only its participation in government could restore public confidence in the government and thereby ensure sufficient credit to cover the mounting deficit. These views emanated from a particular version of French history that attributed the sovereignty of the first kings to counsels of nobles (from whom the Parlementary magistrates now claimed descent); thus, by tradition, kings needed the consent of the Parlements to rule legitimately.

The legal battle between one of these bodies, the Parlement of Brittany, and the King lasted from 1765 to 1770. The specific issue was whether the central administration had the right to govern directly in a province that had always enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy. In the heat of this battle, the judges, supported by the other regional Parlements and by many commentators in the press, defended their predominance in local matters and by implication, the distinct privileges, or "liberties," of each region of France. In response, the King invoked absolutist doctrine.

As relations between the Parlement of Brittany and the King deteriorated, Louis XV eventually recognized that he had to act decisively. In 1770 he selected a new set of ministers, led by the "triumvirate" of chancellor René Maupeou, the Abbé Joseph Terray as finance minister, and the Duke d'Aguillon as foreign minister. These ministers set out to "reform" the royal government. A first step necessitated securing even more power for the King's hand-picked ministers. The Parlements objected angrily: such centralization, they said, would violate the "liberties" of the "nation" to participate in the government through the Parlements and regional Estates. Frustrated by this continual opposition to his decrees, the King dissolved all thirteen Parlements, "exiled" the magistrates, and created new courts.










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